Looking back at the 218 new movies I’ve seen this past year, here’s a celebration of those I can’t stop talking or thinking about, and those I’m jumping at the chance to write about again. My top ten list is comprised of the films that were “released” this year, that would qualify for most Oscar categories or other year-end awards. Since many of the best films I saw this year have either gone unreleased thus far, or didn’t receive traditional theatrical releases, I took the liberty of crafting a top five list of films to either watch on a Video On-Demand platform at the next possible opportunity, or keep an eye out for in 2012. Many of those that were released have gone tragically under-seen and under-celebrated, so consider adding them to your Netflix queue or otherwise seeking these films out and catching up on some gems you may have missed this past year.

10. I Melt With You – Dir. Mark Pellington

I Melt with You may best be thought of as the 2011 version of The Big Chill, combined with the idealistic and anti-establishment head-trip/road-trip/drug-trip movies of the 1960’s. Mark Pellington’s (The Mothman Prophecies) latest film tracks a weekend reunion of now 40-something college friends played by Thomas Jane (TV’s “Hung”), Rob Lowe (TV’s “The West Wing”), Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles) and Jeremy Piven (TV’s “Entourage”). As the old friends examine where they ended up in life, their dissatisfaction gives way to revisiting a pact they made in college that may have deadly consequences. Pellington’s history of directing music videos is evident in his ability to perfectly blend music, images, and text to create an immersive emotional and sensory experience. I Melt with You is destined to become a cult classic, and is currently available via iTunes and other On-Demand outlets.

9. My Week with Marilyn – Dir. Simon Curtis

Part coming-of-age-tale, part tragic farce, part not-quite-a-love-story, My Week with Marilyn is an intimate look at screen icon Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) and the week she spent with Third Assistant Director Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) on the set of Sir Lawrence Olivier’s film The Prince and the Showgirl. Curtis perfectly blends the grand scope of the cinematic story and the intimate feel of a blossoming friendship. Williams hits every note perfectly as Monroe, finding vulnerability and strength in the emotional nooks and crannies of an incredibly complex character. Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet) does stellar work playing his hero Olivier, and Dominic Cooper (An Education), Emma Watson (the Harry Potter movies), Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) and Julia Ormond (TV’s “Temple Grandin”) all add humor and heart to a story that is ultimately as pragmatic as it is whimsical. Williams gives the best performance of any actress this year, and Branagh, of any actor in a supporting role. Now playing in theaters.

8. Margin Call – Dir. J.C. Chandor

First-time writer/director J.C. Chandor has said that he had been waiting fifteen years to direct Margin Call, and it’s with that experience and assured hand that he delivers a flawless piece of filmmaking and one of year’s most thrilling and suspenseful films. Margin Call offers a look at what transpired at a Wall Street investment bank in the hours leading up to the financial crisis. The ensemble includes Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey, delivering his best work since American Beauty, Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune), Oscar-nominee Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones), Penn Badgley (TV’s “Gossip Girl”) Simon Baker (TV’s “The Mentalist”), Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind), Demi Moore (Ghost), and Zachary Quinto (Star Trek). Chandor’s masterfully-written dialogue and his ability to steadily and subtly build suspense make Margin Call one of the year’s most engaging and rewatchable films. The cast has already won the Independent Spirit Award of Best Ensemble, and they make a strong case for the Oscars including a similar category. Currently available on Blu-Ray, DVD, iTunes, and other On-Demand outlets.

7. Melancholia  – Dir. Lars von Trier

On-screen and in person, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist) is never far from controversy. Although the imagery and subject matter of Melancholia may be less incendiary than some of his previous works, von Trier’s latest is another unforgettable tale blending darkness and beauty, in both subject matter in imagery. Melancholia features the first work from Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man) that truly deserves to be called a tour de force performance. Dunst plays a woman suffering from depression on her wedding night, as family tensions rise and the planet Melancholia veers closer and closer to Earth. There’s combination of sadness, wonderment, and ecstasy that’s felt throughout the experience of watching the film. Even if you’re watching the film via Video On-Demand at home, the video feels like a truly cinematic experience. Von Trier’s visual poetry promises to be even more staggering when it’s released on Blu-Ray on March 13th. Either way, this stunning achievement is not to be missed.

6. We Were Here – Dir. David Weissman

Documentarian David Weissman follows-up his award-winning documentary The Cockettes with We Were Here, a reflective look at San Francisco before, during, and after the AIDS epidemic. Although Weissman engages in a talking-head and archival footage style of filmmaking that so many documentaries have moved away from in the past decade, Weissman uses interviews and photos to weave a film that is equally heartbreaking and inspiring. The interviews that the film is woven from are with members of the Queer community in San Francisco, many of whom marched alongside or worked for Harvey Milk in the mid-seventies. The group here includes an artist, a flower salesman, an AIDS-ward care-giver, and a nurse who were the partners and caregivers of the infected, and in some cases were infected themselves. They recount the utopian promise of San Francisco in the 1970s, how AIDS redefined their communities and the individuals in them, the rise of effective treatments in the 1990s, and the ongoing struggle many face of coming to terms with these decades of tragedy. We Were Here serves as a touching portrait of heartache and nostalgia, and a meditation on the countless fragmented dreams and lost loves that could have been. The film has been shortlisted of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and has been nominated for the Independent Spirit Award. We Were Here is a must-see film, but one that must be seen with tissues and loved ones close by. Now available via On-Demand and Pay-Per-View. There are upcoming screenings throughout the country. Visit www.wewereherefilm.com for up-to-date info.

5. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front – Dir. Marshall Curry

The Oscar-nominated director of Street Fight and Racing Dreams has once again uncovered a slice of America to create a documentary that’s been duly embraced by critics and now the Academy, having been shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. If a Tree Falls examines the acts of the Earth Liberation Front as seen through the eyes of Daniel McGowan as he sits on house arrest awaiting sentencing for acts he committed years earlier. The film is all at once a fish-out-of-water story, a coming-of-age tale, and a parable of people on both sides of the law realizing that morality isn’t as stagnant of a notion as they once thought. Curry is becoming the heir-apparent to Errol Morris, in terms of getting his subjects to reveal things in interviews no one ever thought possible, and taking his subjects and audiences to places they didn’t expect to go. If a Tree Falls has been inspiring discussion and debate since it starting screening this past summer, and it will hopefully continue to do so for months to come. Join the discussion by seeing the film on DVD, Netflix Instant, or iTunes.

4. Battle for Brooklyn – Dirs. Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley

The RumuR Inc. production team of David Beilinson, Suki Hawley, and Michael Galinsky crafted the most viscerally powerful, enraging, and dangerous documentary of the year. Battle for Brooklyn follows graphic designer turned reluctant community organizer and activist Daniel Goldstein as he fights to save his Brooklyn neighborhood from being seized by a government that’s been bought by billionaire developer Bruce C. Ratner. Every frame delivers a sense of populist outrage and danger, and Galinsky (in his capacity as Director of Photography) follows Goldstein into one confrontation after another, ranging from the streets of Brooklyn to the hearings where the voice of the community is either ignored or shut out all together. Though Goldstein falls into his role of the voice of the people accidently, the audience witnesses him evolve into the ultimate everyman’s spokesperson, marching into enemy territory with the unrepentant attitude of Bob Dylan walking on stage plugged-in for the first time. Suki Hawley edited together a film that in 93 minutes is equal parts polemic, character study, a David-and-Goliath tale, and shows enough of both sides of the issues to never veer off into propaganda. The Academy has shortlisted the film for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Battle for Brooklyn is screening at 11:00 am Saturday and Sunday January 7th and 8th with Galinsky on hand for post-screening Q&As. Academy members get in free. The film is screening throughout the country the next several weeks. Visit the film’s facebook page or http://battleforbrooklyn.com/ for the most current information on screenings.

3. The Flowers of War – Dir. Yimou Zhang

Yimou Zhang has proven himself time-and-time-again to be one of the world’s most accomplished and consistently excellent filmmakers, hitting a career zenith his past decade with the Oscar-nominated films Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. The Flowers of War is his greatest achievement, a sweeping epic of a film that feels like it belongs in a cannon alongside the greatest epics of legendary directors David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and William Wyler (Ben-Hur). The Flowers of War is set against the backdrop of Japan’s invasion of Nanking in 1937. Amidst the destruction and terror, a westerner (played by Christian Bale, in his most multi-dimensional role to date) seeks refuge by posing as a priest. He unwittingly stumbles onto a group of orphans and geishas, and weighs the decision of sacrificing his safety to try and secure theirs. Zhang steers the story well away from melodrama and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats for every second of the 145 minute running time. The Flowers of War is the kind of epic wartime romance that used to be commonplace among Hollywood studio releases. Zhang masterfully resurrects that form of storytelling, and creates the year’s finest cinematic experience. Returning to theaters in the Spring.

2. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Dir. Stephen Daldry

Stephen Daldry is a director who’s truly batted a thousand this past decade; becoming the only director ever to receive Oscar nominations for each of his first three films (Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader). Daldry’s films have become increasingly polarizing among critics and awards bodies. Although it’s hard to deny that his films are always filled with exquisite (and often Oscar-nominated) performances and are well-crafted from every angle, Daldry’s often accused of over-manipulating the audience and going for the easy tear-jerk. All that’s ever been said about Daldry’s films can be said about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. That said, it’s not only his greatest film yet, but one of the most emotionally cathartic experiences to come to theaters in years. The film tells the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) as he attempts to make sense of the death of his father in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Oskar wanders the streets of New York, coping with Asperger’s syndrome and attempting to find the matching lock to what he believes is a mysterious key his Dad left him. Oskar’s parents are played by Oscar-winners Tom Hanks (Philadelphia) and Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), with Bullock especially managing to surprise. Viola Davis is another bright spot, in a role that’s a complete reversal from her work in The Help. Living legend Max von Sydow (The Exorcist) is worthy of an Oscar nomination for a wordless performance. Screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and composer Alexandre Desplat (The Kings Speech) both deserve Oscar nominations for their beautiful and compelling work here. Currently playing in limited release, opening in wide release on January 20th.

1. Road to Nowhere – Dir. Monte Hellman

When director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, The Shooting) returned to directing after an absence of over twenty years, he created the year’s great cinematic masterpiece, and a completely unique, brilliant piece of filmmaking that promises to demand and inspire countless viewings in the years to come. Road to Nowhere is the film-within-a-film-within-a-film story of intrigue, lust, obsession, and murder. At the heart of the film is Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) who perfectly captures the out-of-his-depth nature of every first-time director and film school wunderkind, whose potential and idealism quickly buckle under the daily pressure of trying to get the shots he needs. His lead actress Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon) bears an eerie resemblance to her character Velma Duran, the victim of the murder mystery the film crew is trying to unravel while shooting the film on location. Steven Gaydos wrote the year’s best screenplay, a film that reads like a novel and is the ultimate modern-day film noir and a love letter to movies and those that make them. Hellman knows inside-and-out the process of filmmaking and those involved every step of the way, and his love for and frustration with all of them are felt throughout the entire film. Though his brilliant directorial touches are endless, one of them is using the old and new songs of Tom Russell as almost the entire score of the film. Russell is arguably the greatest songwriter currently crafting and releasing albums (his new songs from Road to Nowhere can be found on his latest, “Mesabi”), and the profundity of his lyrics and his approach to storytelling make Hellman and Russell ideal muses for each other. The non-linear and layered fashion in which the story unravels requires an incredible investment from the audience, but the emotional payoff is well worth it. And the payoff isn’t even in the climax of the film, but the moments of splendor and insight throughout. These range from the tragic, “We don’t want to admit how much time we spend obsessing over other people’s dreams.” To the absurd, “I don’t think I can claim deductions on bribes.” To the humorous, “It’s not just some Hollywood piece-of-shit movie. It’s MY Hollywood piece-of-shit movie.” Road to Nowhere spends two hours blurring the line between life and death, passion and insanity, conformity and beauty. The ultimate principle guiding the audience through the film, and maybe, the ultimate one to take away, is that “If it all made sense, I wouldn’t be interested.” Currently available on Blu-ray, DVD, and iTunes.

As previously mentioned, as some of the best films of the past year we’re only seen far off the beaten path, here’s a list of five of this year’s sometimes-too-hidden gems, and where to can see them either currently or keep an eye out for their hopeful release on 2012.

5. Newlyweds – Dir. Edward Burns

With total of $109,000 dollars and an independent spirit, filmmaker Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen, Nice Guy Johnny) made the best comedy of 2011. Although it may have been lacking the gut-busting laugh-out-loud scenes of Bridesmaids, Newlyweds earned its share of laughs, and its honesty, heart, and insight make it a must-see. The film is currently available on iTunes and other On-Demand outlets, and makes for a the perfect couples night-in. Much of the cast will already be familiar to the fans of Burns’ earlier works, and fans of It’s Complicated will enjoy seeing Caitlin Fitzgerald in a leading role. Special attention is also due to Kerry Bishe. With excellent performances this year as varied as those in Newlyweds and Kevin Smith’s Red State, she’s become one of the great rising stars to keep an eye on.

4. This Time – Dir. Victor Mignatti

This Time may be the most genuinely inspirational film of 2011. In working musicians The Sweet Inspirations, Pat Hodges, Bobby Belfry, and Peitor Angell, director Victor Mignatti found a collection of the most inspiring characters that have recently appeared on-screen. This Time follows this group of once-famous and almost-famous musicians as they struggle to create and sell their art. The film is full of so much wonderful music, and the very act of watching these talented individuals express their creativity at any cost is the ultimate love letter and rallying cry to those who never gave up on their dreams. Currently available on iTunes.

3. Adultolescence – Dir. Vicky Shen

Even among the most accomplished and original films to hit the festival circuit this year, Vicky Shen’s Adultolescence stood out as a towering achievement in filmmaking and personal storytelling. Shen served as writer, co-director, co-producer, editor, and star of Adultolescence, and her unique perspective guided and crafted every aspect of the film. In many cases, knowing a film was made by a one-person crew (which Shen was at times) can be a red flag warning of indulgence and filmmaking that is less-than-stellar from a technical or storytelling standpoint. What’s evident in the opening scenes of Adultolescence is that Shen has an incredible amount of compelling things to say, and is a skilled enough hand in all aspects of filmmaking, that there’s a serenity in giving yourself over to her as an audience member. Shen tales of a young woman returning home after college, deals with themes including family turmoil, identity politics, social media, the immigrant experience, the post-college experience, and the “tiger mom” debate. Shen explores these themes and her characters in a manner that rendered her one of the true breakout filmmakers of 2011 and a talent to watch out for. Visit the Adultolescence facebook page or http://www.adultolescence.net/ for information on upcoming festival screenings and distribution.

2. Once I Was a Champion – Dir. Gerard Roxburgh

Gerard Roxburgh’s first feature Once I Was a Champion came out of the gate at the LA Film Festival as the front-runner in this year’s Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature. Proving that there sometimes is no justice in the world, the film didn’t qualify for this year’s race, and one of the year’s best films has continued to go criminally under-seen. Once I Was a Champion is the story of the life and death of enigmatic Ultimate Fighting Champion Evan Tanner, as told through interviews by the fifty people who were closest to him. Although on a surface level, the film may be about Mixed Martial Arts, alcoholism, and a reluctant hero, Roxburgh’s achievement is far greater.  Roxburgh has an innate sense of how multidimensional people are and have the capacity to be, and Once I Was a Champion is ultimately an exploration of those principles. What results is that with his first film. Roxburgh had proven a greater connection to and insight into the human condition, as well as an ability to capture it in film, than most filmmakers reach in a lifetime. A true talent to watch out for and a film not to be missed. Follow the film’s facebook page for up-to-date information on upcoming screenings and distribution in 2012.

1. The Dynamiter – Dir. Matthew Gordon

Director Matthew Gordon was the break-out story of this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, and well as the Deauville Film Festival in France, the Berlin Film Festival, and others around the world where The Dynamiter was met with universal acclaim. Audiences and critics responded to Gordon’s ability to tell a coming-of-age story set in the modern-day South, utilizing his background in documentary filmmaking to shoot scenes and facilitate performances in a manner that created one of the most intimate-feeling films of the year. Gordon’s direction of child actors was unparalleled and first-time actor Patrick Rutherford delivered the best performance in any film this year. Gordon and company have been recognized with a nomination for Film Independent’s John Cassavetes Award (recognizing a film made for under $500,000) and Jeffrey Waldron was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography. Rutherford is another incredible talent to keep an eye out for in 2012. He could soon be considered the finest actor of his generation, and hopefully the work and acclaim he’s long overdue will be fast in coming. Film Independent members will be able to see the film when it’s screened for the organization, and Gordon is scheduled to appear on a panel of filmmakers nominated for the John Cassavetes Award, to take place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday, January 12th at 7:30pm. Distribution deals both foreign and domestic for The Dynamiter are pending, but keep an eye on the film’s facebook page for up-to-date information.

3 Responses to “LiC contributor Jackson Truax’s 2011 Top 10 (plus 5)”

  1. Thanks Jackson. I’m always interested in the past-year-in-film-best-of lists because they sometimes throw up titles I’m unfamiliar with that are worth discovering. And that certainly appears the case here. The previous reviews I’ve read of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have confirmed my worst fears about the film. So I found your selection of it a particularly curious choice. I guess it is a polarizing film.

  2. Very eclectic list, Jackson. You’ve picked some really interesting selections and I gotta admit, I haven’t heard of a few, so now I’m curious to check some of these out.

    I like what you said about Melancholia being a truly cinematic experience, in virtually any viewing condition. That opening prologue is one of the more beautiful and striking sequences of images I’ve seen in some time.

  3. @ joel – Thanks so much. I hope you enjoy the ones that you haven’t seen yet. I just got a Blu-Ray player last week, and am dying to see Melancholia again on Blu-Ray in March. Hopefully it will only get more beautiful and striking.

    @sarte – I hope you find some of the films here that you’re unfamiliar with worth checking out. Although others critics and filmmgoers clearly disagree, I have no problem with 9/11 being used in a fictional storyline. And since I’ve been a great fan of Stephen Daldry’s since Billy Elliot and the The Hours, so I had a sense of what to expect from his take on the material. I can easily see why it’s so polarizing, but I’m hoping that in the coming weeks audience members and hopefully Academy members will be willing and wanting to check the film out for themselves.

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